In the first of a two-part series to kick off 2020, we assess the tech trends that have shaped the Middle East over the past 12 months and explore the forces set to inform the coming year.
Here, we look at the biggest developments from 2019 in startups, telecoms, social media, e-commerce, government censorship, and cybersecurity.
Ride-hailing service Careem was acquired by Uber at the end of March 2019 in a $3.1bn transaction. Subject to regulatory approval, the deal was officially closed at the start of January. Careem will become a wholly-owned subsidiary of Uber, operating as an independent company under the Careem brand and led by Careem founders.
SEE: Launching and building a startup: A founder's guide (free PDF)
In June, the company shared its initial pitch deck, which had returned 100-fold for investors. Since its formation in 2012, Careem has "created over one million employment opportunities" and generated more than $2bn in earnings across 15 markets.
In contrast, Fetchr, one of the region's biggest startups, which was valued at around $300m in 2017 when it secured $41m in series B investments, had to raise $10m in emergency funding in December, Bloomberg reported.
Alongside this injection of cash, Bloomberg revealed that the delivery and logistics company was "also in the process of securing as much as $25m in additional funding to turn the company around". Fetchr, which we profiled first in 2015 and then again in 2019, uses GPS coordinates to deliver packages to customers across the region.
The biggest venture capital investment of 2019 was in the UAE-based Emerging Markets Property Group (EMPG), Wamda observes. The parent company of Bayut.com, raised $100m in a Series D round, although as the website menabytes notes, only $50m of this investment is fresh funding as the rest of $50m was announced in August last year.
The owner of the Dubai property portal Bayut.com, the privately owned EMPG, also manages other property sites across the region, as well as in other markets such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Spain, and Romania.
"5G services have now become a reality in the region," observed the GSMA. "As of October 2019, 10 operators had launched commercial 5G services in five GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] Arab States and mobile operators in these countries are aiming to be global leaders in 5G deployments, while certain governments view the technology as a potential enabler for their digital transformation ambitions."
Data from the GSMA also finds that 3G and 4G networks, which are essential for connecting to the internet by mobile, now cover 89% and 62% of the region's population.
However, the cost of data and phones, as well as concerns about reliable mobile reception, are issues for mobile owners in many Middle Eastern nations.
The Pew Research Center highlighted that "in Lebanon, for example, 77% of phone owners report having problems getting reliable mobile connections, and about two-thirds (66%) say they avoid doing things with their phones because those activities use too much data. In Jordan, nearly half (48%) report having trouble paying for their phone, while in Tunisia four-in-10 (40%) say it can be a challenge to find places to recharge their phones".
Despite these very real issues, as mobile broadband has become more mainstream, use of social media on mobile devices in the region has more than doubled to 44% in the past five years.
Nine out of 10 young Arabs use at least one social media channel every day, although use of individual networks varies considerably across the region, the annual Arab Youth Survey found.
In Egypt, the biggest market in the region, 77% of millennials watch YouTube every day. "That's more than any other platform, even TV," Google says. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is the biggest user of YouTube per capita worldwide.
Snapchat, the ephemeral messaging app added a new 'Swipe Up to Call' feature in December. Exclusive to users in the Middle East, it allows customers to call a business they see advertised on Snapchat for no fee. Saudi Telecom Company and Zain Group were among the first advertisers to take advantage of the new product.
Consumers in the Middle East and North Africa, notably in GCC states, are "among the most connected and digitally savvy in the world", Bain noted in a report on e-commerce in the region.
The region's e-commerce market was worth $8.3bn in 2017, with 80% of that figure being generated in the Gulf nations and Egypt. In those markets, e-commerce is growing at 30% a year. E-commerce in the UAE – as a percentage of total retail – is equivalent to Brazil and Turkey, with Egypt comparing favorably with India and Indonesia.
The report's authors estimate that the e-commerce market in the region "has the potential to grow 3.5 times by 2022, reaching a total market size of $28.5bn and a penetration rate of 7% of total retail sales, similar to what is seen in continental Europe today".
Separately, in April, Souq.com, the region's largest online shopping site, began operating in the UAE under a new domain: Amazon.ae. It continued to operate in Saudi Arabia and Egypt through other dedicated websites.
Blocks, cybersecurity, and hacking
The past year, users in the region experienced a number of internet outages as government's sought to restrict access to particular apps and services.
In October, NBC News reported how protesters in Iraq were using Snapchat's interactive heatmap to document and share footage from demonstrations. Other apps, such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Instagram, were blocked at the time.
Iranians experienced a major internet shutdown in November, which activists called "a coup against internet freedom". Shutdowns in Iran have happened before, but this was the first time users have been unable to circumvent it.
Reuters described the events as "the country's biggest anti-government demonstrations since the Arab Spring eight years ago". Further social media blocks took place during the summer, in a bid to make it harder for students to cheat during their exams. The country did the same thing in 2018 and in 2016.
The Israeli military targeted a building in the Gaza Strip in May, which the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said housed cyber operatives working for Hamas. ZDNet's Catalin Cimpanu explained that "Israel's response to Hamas' attempted cyberattack is a turning point in modern warfare, where military action was chosen instead of a typical 'hack-back' response".
Cimpanu has also highlighted the use of destructive data-wiping malware being deployed in cyberattacks against energy companies in the Middle East, as well as the emergence of a hacking group – known variously as Lyceum or Hexane – which is also targeting the petro-chemical industries, with a particular focus on Kuwait.
Finally, in October, Facebook filed a lawsuit against the NSO Group, an Israel-based company, accusing them of facilitating government hacking sprees in 20 countries. NSO denied the claims.
Writing in The Washington Post, Will Cathcart, head of WhatsApp, argued this "should serve as a wake-up call for technology companies, governments and all Internet users".
"The mobile phone is the primary computer for billions of people around the world. It is how we have our most private conversations and where we store our most sensitive information. Governments and companies need to do more to protect vulnerable groups and individuals from these attacks," he said.